NAU student organization gives kids with disabilities a fun set of wheels

By Nate Boyle
Published: Wednesday, May 24, 2023 - 1:19pm

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Joshua Kerpan in a Go Baby Go car.
Liz Butler
Joshua Kerpan in a Go Baby Go car.

Joshua Kerpan is an adrenaline junkie. You can tell by the way he drives his new off-road 4x4.

Kerpan is 5 years old and lives with his family in Queen Creek. He has Down syndrome. If he wants to tell you something, he’ll use sign language, or type out a message on his iPad, and a robotic voice will take care of the rest. He has low muscle tone, and this makes it difficult for him to do things like sit up straight or walk for long distances.

He recently received a very special gift designed to help him get around and have a ton of fun. It’s a red and black truck, tailor made for him to drive.

Except, it’s a toy. You know the kind, like those pink Barbie Jeeps you see in TV ads. A motorized, child-sized car that’s been specially modified to help Kerpan get around — and let him have fun going from place to place. A lot more fun than riding in a stroller.

Kerpan’s not the first kid to get such a gift. His car and others come from Go Baby Go, a national organization with a chapter at Northern Arizona University.

“We have connections with the community and then a lot of the people that we find are just through word of mouth. So for instance, the family that we're working with today is from a peer who had a nephew in need," said Liz Butler, the former president of NAU’s Go Baby Go chapter.

“And then we have alumni that goes out into the workforce and then they meet new people and new families that need cars to assist their kiddos with mobility and so they reach back out to go baby go and we're able to assist them with that.”

But the cars don’t come ready-made for children with mobility issues. They have to be modified. That’s where the robotics club at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale comes in. Using materials provided by both the school and Go Baby Go, the club makes the car accessible to kids like Joshua Kerpan.

“For Go Baby Go to be able to do our builds. We need people that have knowledge on kind of like electrical and just like mechanics and so she thought it would be a great pairing to be able to come to Saguaro High School and give them the opportunity to learn about what occupational therapy is, but also be able to help us out," said Butler.

Butler brought the car to Saguaro, where the students went to work.

Alex Stevenson is a student leader on the high school’s robotics team. He explains how each car is modified to fit the needs of the kid who will eventually get it.

Members work together to build a Go Baby Go car.
Nate Boyle/KJZZ
Members work together to build a Go Baby Go car.

“The modification process really varies depending on a kid by kid basis, and we meet the needs of each kid. That also changes what we use to adapt it. So this one was a little lighter, we didn't actually have to do a whole lot of electrical work," said Stevenson. "Typically we will rewire the pedals because some kids may lack functionality in their feet. So we will move that the button will make a new button and we'll rewire that and mount it higher where they can use it with their hands to operate the vehicle."

In this case, Stevenson and his fellow students didn’t have to deal with all that.

"So we were just able to focus on the functionality of the car. Sometimes we'll make some structural changes a little to the car. So you see here that we're adding foam blocks on that just to keep the kid more secure, because the kid is smaller than the seat and we don't want the kid sliding around when they're operating the car, you know, any potential for injury," said Stevenson.

“We are adding a grab handle to the wheel, so make it more operable.”

“We used a Dremel in order to cut out the divots in the axle so that way it could have a larger turn radius because it was limiting it previously.”

Once the modifications are finished, the students test it out.

Go Baby Go hood gets worked on.
Nate Boyle/KJZZ
Go Baby Go hood gets worked on.

With the car ready to roll, all that’s left is to present it to Joshua Kerpan. A couple weeks after the build day, Butler and her colleagues meet the Kerpan family at a park near their house. It’s a sunny day, and Joshua and his brother are already playing together when Butler arrives. The students unload the car and show Joshua his new wheels.

Joshua is clearly thrilled, he’s smiling from ear to ear, and so are his parents. The car revs up and he waves his arms back and forth, almost overwhelmed.

“Joshua is an adrenaline junkie like loves the swing loves being pushed really fast. He has a little like motorized ATV that he loves at home. He can't quite drive it very well. So this is awesome that it's been like customized for him to be able to maneuver it or that we can control it, which is probably a good safety feature for him. But he loves stuff like this. And we have a lot of parks in our neighborhood that we love to go to.

“Right now Joshy has not quite learned how to ride a bike. So we still either push him in a stroller or something along those lines. So this will be really awesome that he can have kind of his own fun little transport to go around with us. So I'm sure we'll end up using it every day, to be honest," said Steffi Kerpan, Joshua’s mother. 

Joshua Kerpan in a Go Baby Go car.
Liz Butler
Joshua Kerpan in a Go Baby Go car.

“I think having a son with a disability is is tough, and there's definitely the ups and downs," said Jordan Kerpan, Joshua’s dad, who confirms that today was an up. As Joshua goes off on a joyride across the field, you can see him beginning to assert his independence. Good thing his dad has the car’s remote on hand to bring him back — just in case.  After all, the kid’s only five years old, not nearly old enough to drive.

For KJZZ news, I’m Nate Boyle. 

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